Each year I spend at least a few weeks in the deserts of the Southwest. My favorite places include the high desert canyons of northwest New Mexico, the Great Sonora Desert of Arizona, Death Valley, and the Big Bend area in Texas. Many of my friends in New York City cannot quite understand the attraction. Yet courted patiently and with devoted attention, the desert will slowly reveal her charms, even to the skeptic. Even more, the desert may cause us to look at our world and ourselves in a new way.
The desert continually surprises. Familiar landmarks look unfamiliar in different times and seasons: at dawn her colorless landscape becomes a riot of hues and pastels as the rising sun’s rays dance off canyon walls peppered in gold, turquoise and crimson. Somber blues and grays fill the sky with an approaching winter storm. At daybreak the red-tailed hawk circles in the sky looking for the scampering kangaroo rat, and at dusk the wild coyote howls its lonesome hymn to the moon through the high desert air. The desert is the lover with the new dress or hair style, her appearance always familiar yet fresh and boldly different. On each occasion she entices me with her beauty as if for the first time.
I sometimes think of the desert as one of the immortals of whom Homer and Hesiod sang. She seems to have existed essentially as she is today since before I was born, and she will continue to exist unchanged after I am gone. In an age of restlessness, in which my home city has been built up, torn down and rebuilt in my lifetime and the familiar places of my childhood disappear almost daily, the desert offers the comfort of permanence, the promise of continuity in a world of change.
A Vast and Lonely Muse
In her stability lies also the inspiration of a muse. Here I do not easily lose myself in the dazzling variety and ever-changing newness of things. The desert will not entertain me; she is no Disneyland. Instead she inspires awe and prods me to wonder why anything is at all, to reflect on the mystery of what is and who I am.
I know that the small stream running through the canyon shaped the canyon walls, cutting them from bedrock millions of years ago. I know that the melting mountain snow caused the stream, and that the pinyon pine and juniper came from seeds blown by desert winds that found root in clay and sand. Yet what attracts my attention and causes me to wonder is not this chain of causes, but that these desert things simply are, exist, have come to be and endure in this harsh and hostile place. If on the one hand she seems forever the same, her inhabitants may cease to be, or at least be the way they are, without so much as an apology. The desert is dangerous, unpredictable, open to sudden upheaval of wind and storm, drought and flood, and the predatory instincts of beasts and birds, and I discover here that the things of the desert “need not be.” The desert is a journey to the great mystery that all being is at heart radically contingent.
This includes my own being. The desert environment threatens, challenges, poses constant dangers, most of which cannot be clearly foreseen. Temperatures are extreme, with exceedingly hot days and very cold nights. Storms are sudden; small streams and dry arroyos quickly turn into life-swallowing torrents. Animals, birds and reptiles that evolved deadly defenses against prey and keenly honed mechanisms of attack may unintentionally bring me into their deadly sphere of influence.
Moreover, its sheer scale provokes feelings of dependency and smallness of self. The desert is a vast and lonely landscape, with great distances separating the few locations that provide any protection and comfort. Intensified by stretches of unbroken vistas of land and sky, perspective is distorted. Roads are few, and those are no more than dirt trails, rutted and strewn with rocks, impassably muddy after a rain or packed hard as concrete by the bleaching sun. Even the best prepared may meet the unexpected, the freak storm, the slip or fall off a trail, the sudden strike of the surprised rattlesnake. In the final analysis, only the fool thinks he can rely on his strength and skill alone. In short, the desert escapes my control.
For this reason my mind is drawn quietly, patiently, naturally, toward someone outside myself on whom I can lean. In the desert I think not so much of causes as of the Cause, whatever or whoever holds all of this firm but fragile being in existence. To some this may surprise. The desert is frequently spoken of as a place to escape, to withdraw from life and descend more deeply into the self. Many, I think, view the desert fathers this way. They imagine desert monasteries to be enclaves of world-weary introspection. They suspect them to be places where those who do not love the world—oddities and misfits, escapists of every stripe—go to empty themselves of pleasure, of desire, of things that are supposed to make up the humanness of life.
From Introspection to Praise
Ironically, like so many of the world’s evaluations of things that on its own terms it cannot understand, I have found this opinion to be true neither of the desert Benedictines, whose home and hospitality in the Chama Canyon I occasionally share, nor of my own experience as a wanderer in the deserts of the Southwest. The desert escorts me out of myself, drawing me away from self-preoccupation, self-absorption. As the Rev. Donald Goergen noticed during his time in the desert (“The Desert as Reality and Symbol,” Spirituality Today, Vol. 34, 1982), the desert is not conducive, immediately and directly, to producing “inner peace” as are some other landscapes. Rather than turning inward, the experience of the desert is more about recognizing God’s glory in the created world than about finding the divine spark within. The desert experience calls forth gratitude, thanksgiving and trust, not brooding introspection. I thank God for the goodness of creation, for the glory he has chosen to share with his creatures. I praise him for the gift of life, of existence, he has bestowed on me and on all creation. I am grateful for his help in sustaining me in the face of all of the dangers intrinsic to my contingency, my helplessness. For an age that is fascinated by subjective spiritualities of every stripe and too often seeks in religion the comfort of a supposed “stress-free zone,” the desert is the ultimate antidote.
We may, like Jesus, meet and be tempted by the enemy in the desert. We may, like the Baptist, be forced to dine on grasshoppers and wild honey or, like Paul, discover our life’s mission in a desert encounter with God’s grace. One thing is certain, however: If we come to the desert, we will change.